Why is Screen Time Bad for Toddlers?

What's Covered

During this digital era, parents expose their children to screen either for entertainment, education purposes, or as a distraction. A survey done in June 2017 to determine the view of parents on the effects of watching TV on toddlers showed that 39% of the parents of pre-schooling children surveyed indicated that TV viewing was helpful to preschoolers. However, screens can cause more harm than good to children if used excessively and inappropriately. Whatever the reason parents allow toddlers to access screens, the questions should be how much screen time should a toddler have and what are the reasons for the exposure?

Toddler and screen time definition.

A toddler is any child from birth to 4 years old. In this context, the screen may include phones, tablets, television, computers, etc. American Academy of pediatricians suggests that many children get exposed to a lot of TV viewing when very young and this progresses to childhood.[1] Screen time is the access given to toddlers by the parents to use the screen. Screen time should be allowed under the supervision of the parent or caregiver to ensure the toddler gets the right content. Exposing a toddler to too much screen time has effects some of which are harmful to the child.

How much screen time should a toddler have?

Ideally, toddlers should spend most of their time doing physical activities to enhance mental growth and association rather than on screens. A study done in 2019 showed that children with the highest physical activity levels had access to less than one hour of screen media per day. In addition to this, the children also met the recommended level of physical activity which is 11,500 steps per day.[2]

 Studies discourage screen media for children below two and a half years since they learn nothing from videos and Television compared to interaction with reality. Real-life interactions enable the child to retain what is taught.[3]Toddlers between the ages 1-2 tend to learn through imitation. Therefore, the more a parent/caregiver interacts with the child, the more they learn and retain. Pediatrics and Child Health Canada recommends no screen time for children under 2years and less than 1hour of screen time for children of 2-5years.[4]Pediatrics recommends 2hours of TV for children of 2years and above and no television for those younger than 2years.[5]

Screen time and COVID-19

A study in turkey indicated that 68% of mothers stopped going to work and 40.2% of fathers shifted to a flexible work arrangement because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This study also revealed increased screen time and determined basic rules for screen time.[6]Another study conducted in Chile also indicated that when the pandemic began, people spent less time doing physical activities, people including children slept longer and screen time access increased leading to poorer sleep. The restrictions that came with the pandemic also highly affected children in rural areas due to reduced interactions.[7]

During this COVID-19 pandemic, most parents have lost their jobs or have to work from home. Preschooling toddlers have to stay at home due to the closure of schools. Parents use screen media to keep the toddlers busy, quiet, and educated to avoid interference as they work from home. Preschoolers attend online classes from home and interact with relatives and family through phones and computers. Under such circumstances, unregulated screen time may create more harm than good to the toddler.

Symptoms of too much screen time on toddlers

  • Poor body posture- a toddler who uses a phone for too long repetitively may change body posture over time depending on how he/she sits while watching.
  • Behavioral problems- a child may exhibit attention problems or anti-social behavior.
  • Emotional instability- a child may show extreme or very low emotions depending on what they access on screen; for example, a child who views violent content seems to react violently.
  • Preference of screens to people- a child who is addicted may find it difficult/may have no time to interact with peers and family.
  • Poor reaction when stopped- a child addicted to screens may withdraw or get angry when stopped.
  • Poor sleep quality and patterns, for example, a toddler sleeps late and doesn’t get enough sleep quality
  • A series of anti-social behaviors i.e., causing harm to others without any concern.

The Harmful effects of screen time on toddlers

TVs and videos are used for kids’ entertainment or education purposes; however, unregulated screen media use may be harmful. These effects can be classified into:

1.      Health effects

Many parents use screen time to substitute babysitting or as a reward for good behavior. However, this is a danger to the toddler since watching videos, TV, or even mobile games involves sitting around with limited or no physical activity. In addition to this, too much exposure of a toddler to screen time especially 2-4years of age means access to misleading TV adverts on unhealthy foods leading to too much snacking of unhealthy food by the child. These may result in health complications to the child such as overweight and obesity thus interfering with the child’s growth and development and therefore increasing medical spending to the family.

One of the health problems is Overweight and Obesity. Studies carried out indicate that the presence of a TV in children’s’ bedrooms increase their chances of becoming overweight. Research also indicates that TV watching among young children may lead to high weight gain. [8] Research also reveals a direct positive relationship between excess screen media access and increased obesity.[9]

2.      Impact on child development

Firstly, screen time may bring about delayed language in children. Research done in Spain depicts that children who watch over 2hours of television tend to have slow communication.[10] Screen time can interfere with language development in young children. An epidemiological study on 2year olds in Korea revealed that age 2 in a child’s development is very important since this is the stage where a child develops communication skills. Toddlers who watch TV for more than 2hours and less than 3hours have high risks of delayed language development.[11]

Secondly, screens can interfere with a toddler’s brain development. Research done has revealed that the brain of toddlers grows through learning, therefore, the brain develops according to how it is nurtured. It is through several interactions with the reality that a child’s brain develops, strengthens, and automates connections. As the children interact with their world, they develop the required neural connections for continuous learning. If an infant’s and a toddler’s experiences are associated with screens, then, the brain is geared towards a different way of learning, therefore, the brain will not develop naturally the way it should.[12]

3.      Behavioral problems

Firstly, too much-unsupervised screen time can lead to violent behavior in a toddler. Unregulated exposure to screen media may lead to violent behavior among toddlers in solving issues.  Toddlers imitate what they see and learn thus, watching inappropriate violent content on TV, videos or games may lead to violent behavior. Most toddlers do not have the right information on how to handle problems and emotions therefore, it is upon the parent/caregiver to instill such information through interacting with the toddler. Children who are given too much screen develop lower self-control, unregulated emotions, difficulty accomplishing tasks, and are also likely to have more trouble making friends.[13]

Secondly, excess screen time can lead to activity displacement in a toddler. A Pediatric study reveals that important preschool skills, say self-regulation, and social skills, and sensorimotor activities are achieved from the interaction of preschoolers and the objects and people existing in reality/natural environment.[14]When toddlers spend too much time watching Tv and videos, they have no time for physical interactions and activities. The time that is supposed to be spent playing and interacting is used on-screen time and this may become a habitual and lifestyle of the child to an extent where he/she doesn’t want any interactive media at all. This is a danger to the child since all toddlers need interactive media to learn and grow healthy.

Finally, too much screen media can lead to anti-social behavior. Too much screen time to toddlers means less physical interaction and therefore less or no socializing. When toddlers play with peers and interact with the natural environment, they learn how to socialize with others and behave appropriately in a social setup. Too much screen time can also result in social isolation and poor relationship between the child and family or friends. Spending free time on the screen by toddlers can become a habit for toddlers such that they would not find a need for social interaction. When kids interact with the screen more than real people and objects, they may do things that are harmful to others without any consideration since screens are not the same as real life.

4.      Sleep problems

Research done by Sciencedirect shows that increased screen time in pre-schooling children is associated with late bedtimes and thus shorter sleeping hours.[15] Every human being needs enough sleep for mental growth and to be able to perform physical activities actively. Some toddlers have TVs in their rooms that promote too much screen time before bedtime, therefore, leading to reduced sleep time. When kids do not get enough sleep, it is difficult for toddlers to be alert during the day and engage in physical activities. Research conducted in China indicated that preschoolers who sleep less and watch more screen media are likely to exhibit more behavioral problems.[16]Putting Television in a child’s room and evening exposure to the screen was directly related to a significant reduction in sleep quality.[17] Toddlers with poor sleep quality find it difficult to be attentive and active.

5.    Effects on family

When toddlers spend a lot of time on the screen, there is limited time for interaction between the child and the parents/caregivers. There is also deprivation of attention and playtime for the toddler. Studies done indicate that children who interact more with their mothers at 18months old watched less screen media at 2 and 3years.[18] Engaging children in interactive media at an early age instills the lifestyle in them and enables healthy and natural growth and development. It is stressful for any parent to raise a toddler who prefers the screen to human interaction as understanding the child also becomes difficult.

How to limit or stop screen time.

Screen time can either distract or educate the child. If a parent has allowed too much-unsupervised screen media and needs to stop or reduce, here are the suggestions:

Increase time spent together as a family-Parents should often engage in activities together as a family either at home or taking vacations and outings. The activities include playing games together at home, going to fun parks, and attending children’s events. Though this may be a challenge to most families during this COVID-19 pandemic, parents with toddlers at home should strive at creating more family times and limit the use of screens.

Introduce rules and policies-These might help in reducing and stopping time spent on screens. The rules may include but are not limited to; no access to screens during eating times, before bed, during family talk times, and when playing. Parents should also set times for watching TV. These restrictions if applied strictly by parents and caregivers will stop the child from excess screen time exposure.

Stop buying screen media-To stop access to too much screen media at an early age, parents should stop buying screen media for toddlers. Instead of buying toddlers screens, parents can invest more in the reading strategy. Reading storybooks to a toddler enhances parent-child bonding and impacts the child’s interaction with people. A boxed set of board books called Baby Love containing three books; Mommy’s Hugs, Daddy’s Hugs, and Counting Kisses, can be used by parents as reading material to the toddlers.

Baby Love
These are the perfect books to read to your toddler to limit screen time access, educate the toddler, lull the toddler to sleep, make the toddler happy and strengthen parent and child bond.

Being a role model-Parents must set an example by not using too much of their phones in front of toddlers and instead, play and communicate more with the child. Toddlers tend to copy what they learn from the surrounding, therefore, parents should stop the use of phones and TV during screen-free times toddlers only learn the best practices.

Parental controls-Parental controls ensure that toddlers only watch what is appropriate. These can be applied by limiting what the toddler can access on screens, setting duration for screen time, and limiting the use of the internet. Parents if allowing some time for screens should set it such that the child can only view only baby content that has been selected and not any other.

Create enabling environment for physical activities-Parents should introduce more toys and take toddlers to fun parks to play around. Television, when not being used, should be switched off to create time for the toddler and parent to bond and interact through playing with toys. Introduction of toys and playing with the toddler enhances the child’s creativity and critical thinking and keeps the child physically healthy. The toddler also learns how to relate better with people through these interactions.

Talk to the Toddler-Explain to the toddler, especially 3 and 4years, why excessive screen time is bad- parents should take the initiative of explaining why screen times are not good since most toddlers are fascinated with screens and are not ready to stop watching. All toddlers need guidance from their parents and caregivers.

Supervision-Supervise what the toddler watches by joining them to ensure the screen is used appropriately. using the screen with the toddler also allows for parent-child bonding and interaction. Viewing the screen together with the toddler

Professional help-Child care centers should provide the necessary education to parents on the harms caused by screen media on young children and the importance of limiting access. Consulting with a qualified pediatrician can be the best place for parents to get the right information about screen time and a toddler’s health. Parents should also take the initiative of reading books relating to screen time and strategies to stop.

Reset your Child’s Brain
This is the best book to buy to deal with a toddler’s screen time problems since its financial implications are lower, it is educative, saves time for parents.

Instead of using screen time to educate a toddler on how to talk parents can buy and read books that are teaching parents and guardians how to make a child speak.

My Toddler's First Words
This is the perfect guide for parents that enables you to teach and expand your toddler’s language. It is educative as well as entertaining. It saves a parent a lot of stress and creates more time in bonding with the child.

To avoid screen time being strenuous to a toddler due to too much screen time, parents should use light blocking glasses.

AHXLL Kids Blue Light Blocking Glasses
These are the best glasses for reducing eyestrain and headaches, and protecting eyes. They are also comfortable and user friendly.

Barriers to limiting Screen time

1.      Influence

Limiting screen time can be strained by influence from peers and the external environment. When toddlers interact with their friends, especially from two years, they tend to share the experiences with screens and how much the parents allow access to computers and TV. Therefore, as much as apparent is trying to limit screen time the child gets exposure from others. Toddlers may also access screen media from relatives and caregivers.

2.      Availability of computers

Limiting or stopping access to screen media at home is challenging when the toddler gets access to computers and TVs from outside. Computers are easily accessible at daycares/schools since it is a learning and entertainment tool.

3.      Commitments

Parents sometimes have no choice but to expose a toddler to screen media because of important commitments either at work or at home. Screen media here, can be used by parents to substitute babysitting, distract or entertain the toddler. This keeps the child busy while the parent is committed to other things.

4.      Socio-economic status

Families with high socioeconomic status have screens easily available at home and in toddlers’ rooms. Therefore, it might be a challenge restricting exposure to what is easily available in the house.

Final thoughts

During this digital generation driven by technology in every sector of life, exposure to computers and other screen media has become a necessity for children to enable them to navigate life easily in the future. Parents should seek professional advice to explain at what age screen media should be allowed, for how long, and the effects. A lot of help is still required from pediatricians and other professional practitioners on explaining to parents the recommended screen time for toddlers, the harm brought by, and ways of limiting/stopping screen time.

[1] Certain, Laura K., and Robert S. Kahn. “Prevalence, correlates, and trajectory of television viewing among infants and toddlers.” Pediatrics 109.4 (2002): 634-642.

[2] Fotini Vetsanou, Antonis Kambas, Vassilios Gourgoulis and Mary Yannakoulia (2019) Physical activity in pre-school children: Tends over time and associations with body mass index and screen time, Annals of Human Biology, 46:5, 393-399, DOI: 10.1080/03014460.2019.1659414

[3] Radesky, Jenny S., Jayna Schumacher, and Barry Zuckerman. “Mobile and interactive media use by young children: the good, the bad, and the unknown.” Pediatrics 135.1 (2015): 1-3.

[4] “Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world.” (2017): 461-468.

[5] Certain, Laura K., and Robert S. Kahn. “Prevalence, correlates, and trajectory of television viewing among infants and toddlers.” Pediatrics 109.4 (2002): 634-642.

[6] Eyimaya, Aslihan Ozturk, and Aylin Yalçin Irmak. “Relationship between parenting practices and children’s screen time during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Turkey.” Journal of pediatric nursing 56 (2021): 24-29.

[7] Aguilar-Farias, Nicolas, et al. “Sociodemographic Predictors of Changes in Physical Activity, Screen Time, and Sleep among Toddlers and Preschoolers in Chile during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” International journal of environmental research and public health 18.1 (2021): 176.

[8] Dennison, Barbara A., Tara A. Erb, and Paul L. Jenkins. “Television viewing and television in bedroom associated with overweight risk among low-income preschool children.” Pediatrics 109.6 (2002): 1028-1035.

[9] Stiglic, Neza, and Russell M. Viner. “Effects of screen time on the health and well-being of children and adolescents: a systematic review of reviews.” BMJ open 9.1 (2019): e023191.

[10] Duch, Helena, et al. “Association of screen time use and language development in Hispanic toddlers: a cross-sectional and longitudinal study.” Clinical pediatrics 52.9 (2013): 857-865.

[11] Byeon, Haewon, and Saemi Hong. “Relationship between television viewing and language delay in toddlers: evidence from a Korea national cross-sectional survey.” PLoS one 10.3 (2015): e0120663.

[12] LOCKHART, SHANNON, and HIGHSCOPE SENIOR EARLY CHILDHOOD SPECIALIST. “Infants, toddlers, and screen media.” Extensions–Curriculum newsletter from High/Scope 29.4 (2015): 1-6.

[13] Twenge, Jean M., and W. Keith Campbell. “Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study.” Preventive medicine reports 12 (2018): 271-283.

[14] Radesky, Jenny S., Jayna Schumacher, and Barry Zuckerman. “Mobile and interactive media use by young children: the good, the bad, and the unknown.” Pediatrics 135.1 (2015): 1-3.

[15] Hiltunen, Pauliina, et al. “Relationship between screen time and sleep among Finnish preschool children: results from the DAGIS study.” Sleep Medicine 77 (2021): 75-81.

[16] Wu, Xiaoyan, et al. “The relationship between screen time, nighttime sleep duration, and behavioral problems in preschool children in China.” European child & adolescent psychiatry 26.5 (2017): 541-548.

[17]Brockmann, Pablo E., et al. “Impact of television on the quality of sleep in preschool children.” Sleep medicine 20 (2016): 140-144.

[18] Detnakarintra, Khanittha, et al. “Positive mother‐child interactions and parenting styles were associated with lower screen time in early childhood.” Acta Paediatrica 109.4 (2020): 817-826.

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Tiffany Biondi

Tiffany Biondi

Mother of 4 kids, Tiffany is a certified childcarer and during her free time, she write posts in thebabychoice to share her hands on experience and knowledge.